U.K. Companies Could Face Tougher Corruption Laws Under May

  • Attorney General says government to start consultation ‘soon’
  • Prime Minister Theresa May behind tougher corruption rules

The U.K. government will press ahead with discussions to make it easier to prosecute companies for a wider range of corruption, according to Attorney General Jeremy Wright, in an indication the new Prime Minister is behind the much-debated legislation.

Speaking at the Cambridge International Symposium on Economic Crime Monday, Wright said Theresa May’s priority of expanding economic opportunities means businesses "of all sizes" should be better held accountable for their failures.

Prosecutors, academics and corruption lobbyists have petitioned the government for years to widen U.K. bribery laws to allow corporate prosecution for failing to prevent economic crimes such as fraud and money laundering. Companies can already be pursued for failing to prevent bribery on their watch. After discussions in which it appeared the country was pressing ahead, the government abandoned the change in September 2015 claiming there was "little evidence of corporate economic wrongdoing going unpunished."

That decision was reversed earlier this year when then-Prime Minister David Cameron told an anti-corruption summit in London the consultation had been re-opened. Wright’s comments are the first indication that view has been carried forward by May, who took office in July.

Economic Crimes

"The government will soon consult on plans to extend the scope of the criminal offense of a corporation ‘failing to prevent’ offending beyond bribery to other economic crimes, such as money laundering, false accounting and fraud," Wright said at the conference in Cambridge, England. "The weaknesses in our current law result in other jurisdictions holding British companies to account when ours has not."

Wright said the scandal over the manipulation of the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, was an example of other countries being better equipped to chase crimes at U.K. companies. The U.S. obtained a number of guilty pleas from banks over the rigging of the rate, while the U.K. only took regulatory action.

"This has clear implications for the reputation of our justice system," Wright said.

U.K. Serious Fraud Office Director David Green, a long-time advocate of a change in the law, reiterated at the conference that he was an "enthusiastic supporter" of the government’s consultation plans.

Green said that "in a world of increasingly complex corporate structures" the current laws "hobble the prosecutor" when it comes to holding companies to account. Existing law requires the prosecutor to show senior executives -- or “controlling mind” -- of a company was involved in the criminality for the firm to be prosecuted.

U.K. law enforcement officers often lament that evidence trails tend to dry up at middle-management levels preventing them from taking action against companies.

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